I'm not sure exactly what Roger Ailes and his fellow poobahs at Fox News were thinking when they hired Glenn Beck to join them in January 2009, but it is a telling fact that Beck's primary professional background was as a morning zoo-show host -- someone who specializes in goofy stunts and wild-over-the-top envelope pushing. Because that, of course, is exactly what they got for the next couple of years, before they finally decided to cut their losses.
Now, there are plenty of things to object to about Glenn's trainwreck of a career at Fox, particularly the noxious and yet little-noticed way he almost effortlessly mainstreamed extremist ideas and rhetoric, most recently with his full-bore descent into promoting John Birch Society conspiracism. Undoubtedly, Beck's relentless fearmongering and the vicious eliminationism of his rhetoric were important components of what made Beck so toxic. Media Matters has compiled an impressive list of the "50 Worst Things Glenn Beck Said On Fox News" that gives a pretty good rundown -- but is really only a start.
Ultimately, the worst damage he caused was to the shape of our national discourse -- from all these factors, but especially in the way he wrapped it up in a "zany" morning-zoo-show format, dragging that discourse down to the level of a prearranged pro-wrestling match. As Will Bunch puts it:
Because the truth is that Beck's ouster isn't really the end of the nightmare, but just the beginning of the end. Over the last 27 months, Beck -- and let's be clear that he had a lot of help from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity and Rand Paul and all the folks in the Tea Party Movement -- managed to do incalculable harm to the American body politic, that Beck was exactly like Tom and Daisy Buchanan in "The Great Gatsby" who "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness.."
You'll probably hear a lot about how Beck coarsened the political debate and how his words may have incited violence, but I think the wreckage is a lot more substantive, to actual policies that affect Americans every day. You see, there was a reason that Beck was so fond of a political theory called the Overton Window-- so enamored, in fact, that he made it the title of his (officially) fictional "thriller" novel last summer. The Overton Window is a notion that you can radically move the parameters of political debate by pushing talk to the outer limits, so that ideas that were once deemed extreme suddenly appeared to be normal.
Ironically, no one mastered the use of the Overton Window better than Beck. With all the focus on the leading edge of Beck's craziness -- the "caliphate" stuff, the flirtation with "the FEMA camps," or President Obama's "deep-seated hatred" of white people -- it's easy to foget how he rationalized once out-there ideas to millions of American conservatives, and how those ideas became ingrained in the Republican agenda that has thwarted progressivism from virtually the day Obama took office.
... You could go on and on -- the talk-radio jihad against big government that has put gutless Democrats so on the defensive that they no longer fight to protect vital programs but only over whether to agree to "steep" spending cuts or "draconian" ones, or the fear-mongering on terrorism and Gitmo that made quivering members of Congress afraid to house terror suspects in our supermax prisons. Don't think that Beck's nightly burst of insanity didn't have a lot to do with these things, because they did.
Don't believe me? Then ask a fellow in South Carolina named Bob Inglis who was a Republican congressman until he told his constituents to "turn off Glenn Beck," and lost a primary to an upstart who got 71 percent of the vote. Why do you think the Republicans in Washington remain in lock step, even as 90 percent of what they stay in lock step for is bat-guano crazy?
As Amato said, Beck inflicted the damage that conservatives needed him to inflict. Now the rest of us get to pay for the long, slow, and perhaps impossible job of repairing it.